If the recent attendance at South Africa's second biennial wine exposition, Cape Wine 2002, is any indication, U.S. consumers could soon be seeing even more South African wines on retail shelves.
The event's success in attracting buyers, importers and journalists from the Americas, Europe and Asia was accompanied by news of substantial growth in the country's exports and by the launch of a new company to promote South African wines worldwide -- all indicators of a turning point for the Cape wine industry as the country's finest wines aim for a higher international profile.
This year, Cape Wine -- the country's largest show to promote wine exports -- was attended by 720 delegates from 32 countries, including 70 journalists. In comparison, the 2000 expo attracted only 154 international visitors. Among those who flew into Paarl for the three-day event, held in the heart of wine country at Nederburg Estate, were 90 representatives from the United States, outnumbered only by the 112 from the United Kingdom.
More than 160 producers, representing the country's various wine regions, showed their wines under one roof, with the strong showing of reds indicating a greater awareness of the wine types that international consumers prefer. While the country had previously best been known for varieties such as Chenin Blanc (called Steen) and the local Pinotage, new styles of Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc got the most favorable reception from visitors.
Jean Engelbrecht of Rust en Vrede Estate, a top winery, was pleased that Cape Wine 2002 allowed him and his colleagues to interact on their home turf with importers in the United States and Europe. "We could show them not only our cellars and explain our processes, but bring home to them the uniqueness of our vineyard settings and terroir," he said.
Su Birch, CEO of the Wines of South Africa export association, which organized Cape Wine 2002, said the event was successful in that it got influential overseas buyers to see how much the country's wines have improved in quality and value.
"For the Americans, this was a hands-on chance to understand our industry and experience the beauty of the winelands for the first time," said Birch. "The future lies in our follow-through, though. I believe we are starting to reach a tipping point in the USA where enough people of influence are recognizing what the Cape has to offer."
During Cape Wine 2002, Birch reported that South African wine exports continue to grow, despite economic downturns in some global markets. Exports in 2001 increased 24 percent over 2000 -- three times the annual growth rate of the previous four years -- and 2002 exports are following the same trend, she said.
Currently, more than 50 percent of South African wine exports go to the United Kingdom, followed by 20 percent to the Netherlands. Only 2 percent of the exports go to the United States, making it a long-term target with great potential, according to local exhibitors.
Emil den Dulk of De Toren winery, whose Fusion V has rated 90 points or better on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale in its first two vintages, noted, "I believe that the most was gained by exposing our wineries to international media, showing our openness, warm-heartedness and above all the quality that South Africa is capable of producing."
In addition to the tastings, Cape Wine 2002 included a series of seminars, which often took an honest, critical look at the local industry and its need to develop a clear identity within the global market. During one, a recently completed report charting a future strategy for the wine industry was unveiled.
As a result of that project, a partnership of farm workers, unions, small and large wineries and related industries established this month the tentatively named South African Wine & Brandy Company to promote the country's wines. The organization, said agri-economist Philip Spies, who spearheaded the project, aims "to turn the local wine industry into a globalized and innovation-driven competitor."
Look for our most recent tasting report on South African wines in the May 15, 2002 issue of Wine Spectator magazine.
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